Relevant founder accused of creating racially insensitive workplace

Relevant founder accused of creating racially insensitive workplace

Cameron Strang, the founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, found himself under attack from a host of former employees this week who accused him of behavior they said was racially insensitive and changed depending on his mood.

Relevant Media publishes a Christian bimonthly geared toward young evangelicals, as well as a website and a network of podcasts.

It was the allegation of racial insensitivity that came in a Twitter barrage on Wednesday (Sept. 18) after Relevant recommended a podcast episode about race and the church on the social media platform.

In reply, Andre Henry, an African American writer who served as Relevant’s managing editor from October 2017 through July 2018, shot back: “Several experiences & stories from my time at @RELEVANT … convince me the org is not committed at all to creating an antiracist culture internally to produce a race podcast with integrity.

“Nor do they honor Black people,” he added.

Henry followed his tweet with a blog post on Medium, titled “Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group.

“The company is in need of the very information they wish to publish for others,” Henry wrote.

Recent Relevant magazine covers. Screengrabs

Henry’s retorts spurred a stream of online testimonies from people who used to work for Strang, both African American and white, men and women, who registered indignation about what some called a toxic environment that they say Strang created. They described a workplace in which Strang exhibited various levels of high-handedness, shouting fits and racially insensitive slights.

On its website Friday (Sept. 20), Relevant issued a statement, headlined, “RELEVANT’s Stand on Racial Justice,” explaining that the magazine had reached out to Henry to apologize.

“In our conversations with him,” the statement said, “he discussed ways we could improve our corporate culture, and based on his insights, we are looking into options to continue improving and create systems to ensure every member of our team has a positive experience.”

After the statement brought further criticism over the course of the day, Strang appeared to delete his Twitter account.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Henry, who now works for Evangelicals for Social Action and hosts a podcast called “Hope and Hard Pills,” described Relevant’s office culture as not outright hostile to people of color — “no one’s using racial slurs,” he said — and added the staff included a range of writers.

But he said that the company’s commitment to diversity was more cosmetic than genuine.

Andre Henry. Video screengrab

“They have done well at appearing to be about racial justice,” said Henry. “They post the right things. They say the right things. They make sure that they have a good mix of people of color in the magazine and on the web, but I don’t think that in their practices as an organization that they honor people of color in that way.”

In his blog post, Henry said the beginning of the end of his tenure at Relevant came after a run-in he had with Strang over coverage of Black History Month.

Henry had planned a month’s worth of content related to the topic, but Strang reportedly warned him not to “waste editorial energy” and complained the site would have to post seven or eight articles each day online to “offset” one article about race, he said.

Not long afterward, Henry wrote, he was “stripped of all decision-making power.”

While he kept his title as managing editor, responsibility for web articles was given to the outlet’s brand manager and articles in the magazine to its contributing editor.

The March/April 2012 issue of Relevant, featuring The Roots on its cover. Screengrab

Ryan Hamm, who worked at Relevant as an editor and managing editor from 2009 to 2012, told Religion News Service of an incident in which members of the editorial staff, including Strang, were discussing the poor newsstand sales of an issue of the magazine that featured an image of the band The Roots on the cover.

“(Strang) said, as I recollect, ‘Well maybe our audience doesn’t want to see scary black men on the cover of Relevant,’” said Hamm, who is now employed at a nonprofit that fights religious persecution. “As soon as he said that, (I thought), ‘If that’s true, then I have no interest in writing for this audience, and I’m done.’”

Rebecca Flores, who preceded Henry as managing editor and whose pen name is Rebecca Marie Jo, wrote in a blog post published Friday that Henry’s post validated her own experiences.

She recounted a meeting in which Strang suggested running an image of a black Christian rapper with a noose around his neck as a “shocking image to symbolize his lynching by white evangelical America” after the rapper was criticized for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Flores, who is Latina, said that she told Strang that she found the idea deeply troubling and offensive.

“Listen. I’m telling you, as a person of color, that if I was reading this magazine, whoa is not the reaction I would have. I would be deeply disturbed. And alienated,” she said. “We do not need to publish an image of a Black man in a noose. This isn’t a good idea.”

Flores said the incident made her feel “like I was in a trap I wouldn’t get out of safely.”

She said Strang “was obviously annoyed with me, and I left trying to hide my exhaustion towards this environment.”

RNS reached out to Strang for comment and to corroborate accounts from former staffers, but he did not immediately respond.

Strang, the son of Charisma magazine publisher Stephen Strang, founded Relevant Media Group in Orlando, Florida, in 2000, when he was 24 years old. As hip as his father’s magazine was religiously conservative, the sleekly designed magazine and website heralded unorthodox Christian heroes from the rock and literary world such as Bob Dylan and the rock band U2, about whom the publishing enterprise also issued adulatory spiritual and musical biographies.

Offering a glimpse of God in popular culture, Relevant’s magazine alone claimed a readership of more than 100,000 by the mid-2000s and had become a guide to navigating mainstream American culture for a generation of young Christian adults venturing out of the evangelical bubble.

But the publication wanted to “avoid taking any strong stances that may be polarizing,” Henry wrote on Medium. And, he believed, it catered to its “mostly white, male, conservative-leaning base.”

“It’s just not for us. We’re welcome to partake, but this is white content for white people,” Henry wrote.

Reviews of Relevant Media Group on Glassdoor, which publishes job listings and company reviews, also hint at issues within the company.

In a one-star review from June 2019, an anonymous user who identified themself as an employee who worked there less than a year, described the outlet’s “work culture” as the “most toxic I’ve ever worked in” and noted the high turnover of staff.

Another review from a user who said they are a current employee who has worked at the company for more than three years gives the outlet four stars, but expressed concerns about Relevant’s leadership.

“The CEO can be erratic, sometimes irrational (especially with female employees) and is very stubborn about everything. He is very controlling, and everything must go through him,” the review said.

Henry said he hopes Relevant’s response can be a teachable moment for evangelical organizations.

“I think that all evangelical institutions who see this, they can be looking to see what to do or not to do depending on how well Relevant doesn’t just listen to me but listens to all the other people that are chiming in,” he said.

Hamm and others were quick to celebrate the work of Relevant as a whole and pinned their frustrations specifically on Strang. Even though he used terms such as “spiritual abuse” to describe his former boss’s behavior, Hamm insisted he remained proud of the work he produced at the magazine.

“Besides Cameron, it would have been the best job I’ve ever had,” Hamm said.

Do These Lives Matter?

Do These Lives Matter?

MOURNING THEIR LOSS: Afghan men gather in the Panjwayee district of Kandahar for a memorial ceremony for the victims killed by a rogue U.S. soldier on March 11. (Photo: I. Sameem/Newscom)

As Christians, we believe every life has value. We believe every life represents a soul, and that Jesus is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). Despite external circumstances, God shows no partiality to anyone; he loves us all equally.

But what about us? Are we “respecters of persons”? Do show favoritism? Are we prejudiced? Our actions often indicate something altogether different than what we’re called to as people of faith.

Imagine this:

It is nightfall. You’ve just finished saying prayers with your family and putting your three kids to bed, and you and your spouse are in your own bed. Life hasn’t been especially kind to you and you are no stranger to death and loss, but it seems that things in your village are finally settling down. You drift off to sleep, not realizing that you will never wake up. You don’t know that your spouse will not wake up. And worst of all, your precious small children, innocent in their youth, filled with promise and aspirations, will never wake up.

A soldier from another country has slipped out under the cover of night and murdered you and your family, along with others — a total of 17 people — in an act that even he can’t explain.

One must believe that, worldwide, there is outrage. There are protests, and there is a plan to address this massacre of innocent human beings. After all, you’re just like most citizens of the world; you aren’t fighting in a war. You’re in your own home. The world is full of good people, who must certainly shudder when thinking of this tragedy, right? Surely, people of all faiths, including Christians, were heartbroken over the crime and took swift action to ensure that these types of acts don’t happen again … Right?

After hearing of the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians, 9 of whom were children, my heart sank. I expected outrage from folks across the world. I expected that the American soldier guilty of the crime would be castigated by millions of people; I expected that churches and several prominent organizations would demand justice for the lives of those lost.

But I heard little. The mass killing occurred on March 11, 2012, and aside from a few reports on NPR, and an initial investigation from major media outlets, the story has been all but forgotten.

The few stories still revolving around the murders are examining whether or not the soldier is suffering from post dramatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the psychological dangers of multiple overseas tours. It’s certainly important to have concern for the mental health of our soldiers, but somehow in the spin of the news cycle, those 17 innocent Afghans have been conveniently moved to the background.

A few weeks earlier, back in the Western Hemisphere, another shooting occurred. By now, everyone’s at least moderately familiar with the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain spotted Trayvon walking around their gated neighborhood, decided he looked suspicious, and reported him to the local police. While the 911 calls are recorded, other details are murky. We do know that Zimmerman followed Trayvon at least for some time, there was some type of scuffle, and in the end, 17-year-old, unarmed Trayvon Martin lay dead and Zimmerman alleges that he killed Trayvon in self-defense.

The news circulated throughout the Black community, largely due to social media, and within a few weeks was picked up by major media outlets. And once it was picked up, there was no stopping the provocative story. In a matter of days, everyone had some type of understanding of the Stand Your Ground Law, Zimmerman’s background, Martin’s background, and everyone had an opinion on it. Many people, including our President, have alluded that Trayvon could be their son or brother. Celebrities took to Twitter to comment on the saga. People updated their Facebook profiles with images of themselves in hoodies. On blogs and websites, people have argued passionately that Martin was a martyr and Zimmerman a racist, or that Martin was a thug and Zimmerman a hero. We’ve analyzed and asked questions about this case from every angle, and for good reason. A young, unarmed man has been killed and it’s possible that race was a motivating factor.

UNFATHOMABLE TRAGEDY: The bodies of an elderly Afghan man and a small child are pictured in Alkozai village in Kandahar. They were two of the 17 people massacred on March 11. (Photo: Mamoon Durrani/Newscom)

And yet … 17 citizens in what seems like a faraway land are dead. We are silent.

Humans are wired to empathize with people who are like themselves. As Americans, it is understandable that we are most concerned about what goes on in the lives of Americans. But what about our role as Christians?

The divides created by nationalities and various faiths should matter infinitely less once we decide to follow Jesus. Do we think Jesus wept more for Trayvon than for those families in Afghanistan? Do we really believe Jesus has a special place in his heart for people from a particular part of the map? Does Jesus care more for those who are dark brown than those who are light brown?

The answer is clear. The Bible verse says, “God so loved the world.”

Just as Jesus’ love is unconditional and inclusive of everyone, so should ours be. The Black community has done an excellent job in addressing what many believe is injustice in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After all, it’s relatively easy to support a cause when you believe that you could be the next victim.

What we need to work on is our ability to address injustices against people who may not look like us, or worship like us, or live next door to us. The very thing many are accusing George Zimmerman of doing — prejudging another human being based on stereotypes — is what we do when turn a blind eye to suffering that doesn’t feel personal.

Bigotry Charges Haunt Iowa Caucuses

Bigotry Charges Haunt Iowa Caucuses

As Republican presidential candidates make their final pitches to the 41 percent of “likely caucusgoers” who are still undecided, charges of bigotry are flying. Here’s a breakdown:

Evangelicals Oppose Romney’s Faith; He Opposes Dream Act

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney faces prejudice in Iowa from evangelicals who are “suspicious” of his Mormon faith, The Washington Post reports, and Romney himself risks alienating Latino voters with his promise to veto the Dream Act for everyone except those who serve in the military. The act would conditionally allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country under the age of 16 to be eligible for legal status.

Santorum Opposes Gays; Journalist Opposes Him and the ‘Jesus Freaks’ Who Support Him

Meanwhile, social conservatives are rallying behind former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, even disillusioned ones like Chris La Tondresse, founder and CEO of an organization called Recovering Evangelical. In a column at CNN.com, La Tondresse said “there’s no questioning Santorum’s social conservative bona fides,” but “more than any other Republican candidate (and even more than some Democrats), Santorum speaks openly and passionately about his concern for poor and vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world.”

David Brooks concurred at The New York Times, saying the working class raised Santorum “goes out of his way in his speeches to pick fights with the ‘supply-siders,'” “scorns the Wall Street bailouts,” and couches his economic arguments as “values arguments” that root “long-term competitiveness” in strong families and “wholesome communities.”

This is where Santorum gets in trouble with folks like Michelangelo Signorile, editor-at-large for The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices channel. Signorile said Santorum, who opposes same-sex marriage, wants to “forcibly” break up those marriages, giving “‘special privileges’ to people based on sexual orientation.” And, at Buzzfeed, Andrew Kaczynski reminds readers that in January 2011, Santorum said President Obama should oppose abortion because he is black.

Ron Paul Opposes the Civil Rights Act, Can’t Escape Racist Newsletters

The bigotry discussion that has dominated the race lately, however, is all about U.S. Congressman Ron Paul—specifically his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his connection to racist newsletters published under his byline in the 1980s and 1990s.

At Salon, Michael Lind succinctly said that “by equating the Civil Rights Act, which expanded American civil liberty, with the Patriot Act, which reduced it, on the grounds that both are federal laws with sanctions, Ron Paul displays the moral idiocy of someone who declares that a person who pushes a little old lady out of the path of a bus is just as bad as a person who pushes a little old lady into the path of a bus, because both are equally guilty of pushing little old ladies around.”

“It certainly is possible that Ron Paul never read [the] publications produced in his own name, just as it’s possible to sincerely believe that the Civil Rights Act destroyed personal liberties, and it’s possible to sincerely believe that if you are going to vote, you should be able to read the names of the candidates, or that Lincoln destroyed the original values of the republic. But it’s also true that those beliefs have long been used to shield more odious ones,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic.

Calling Out the Watchdogs?

Finally, while The Week offered five theories as to why the Iowa caucuses are important, New York Times columnist Gail Collins said they’re not. “On Tuesday, there will be a contest to select the preferred candidate of a small group of people who are older, wealthier and whiter than American voters in general, and more politically extreme than the average Iowa Republican,” said Collins, with nary a hint of bias.

Perhaps she should read Get Religion, where media critic Mollie Hemmingway turned the spotlight back on journalists by excoriating University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom for writing an apparent diatribe in The Atlantic that allegedly characterized Iowans as “uneducated Jesus freaks.” Hemmingway reported that both Columbia Journalism Review and The Associated Press also came down heavy on Bloom and The Atlantic.

What Do You Think?

Is bigotry an important issue in the 2012 race or is it a distraction?

Aliens vs. Racism

Aliens vs. Racism for urban faithIf you’re still having doubts about whether you should see last weekend’s top movie, the science-fiction thriller District 9, I’m here to tell you that it’s a must-see film — that is, if you have the stomach for a little gore and a lot of soul searching.

In a summer filled with transforming robots, heroic Joes, and kid wizards, District 9 stands out as something far more remarkable than your typical alien movie. Unlike Independence Day and Invasion, this movie is not about aliens exterminating humans and taking over the world. Instead, the aliens are a minority group and humans are the villains.

The movie takes place a few decades after aliens have come to Earth. Your first clue that this one’s going to be different is that their massive spaceship descends upon Johannesburg, South Africa — not one of the usual American cities that seem to have a monopoly on extraterrestrial visitors. This gives the film a layer of realism that’s missing from most recent sci-fi releases.

The alien ship eerily hovers over Johannesburg, undisturbed for three months, until a team of human scientists open it up. What they find is a multitude of aliens who are disoriented, malnourished, and stranded. In response, the humans feed the creatures, who are referred to as “prawns” (a derogatory term comparing them to bottom-feeders), and settle them as refugees in a camp called District 9. Over the years, tensions rise between the prawns and humans, and District 9 is transformed into a slum with over 2 million alien inhabitants.

Eventually, humans can no longer tolerate the prawns, and Multi-National United (MNU), a company interested in mastering the aliens’ technology with no regard for the aliens’ welfare, is contracted to evict the aliens to another location miles away from humankind. MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe, who is sympathetic and naïve about many things, including his own prejudice and racism, is chosen to lead this daunting task of serving the prawns with their eviction notices.

Confused and frightened, the prawns become hostile and some are killed. In the process, Merwe contracts a strange virus that mutates his DNA with those of the prawns, and he experiences grotesque physical changes. Soon he is hunted by MNU and abandoned by his friends and family. His only hope lies within the barbed fences of District 9.

Partly shot as a documentary and a CNN-type report, the film handles its themes with maturity, especially in the realistic portrayal of how the aliens are discriminated against. Many of the human characters in the film are ruthless and corrupt with no respect for life, whether it is human or alien. What makes this so disturbing is that this is not an unfair portrayal of humankind. People do this every day to other people.

Another strong element of the movie is the depth of the alien characters. The prawns are not one-dimensional, man-killing creatures. Instead, they have personalities, desires, and emotions, which make them just as “human” as humans, if not more so. They may not be as cuddly as E.T. or ALF, but they aren’t obnoxious ploys for comic relief like Jar Jar Binks.

By having a cast of relatively unknown actors, the film places the aliens and the humans on a more even playing field. Audiences don’t have a studly Will Smith or a stunning Megan Fox to root for, which means it’s anyone’s game. Actor Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus, does a superb job of juggling the emotions and turmoil of his character.

Like any good story, District 9 has plenty of contrasts to engage audiences. Wikus starts out as an enemy of the prawns, but then he starts to become one of them against his free will. As a result, humans become his enemies. This role reversal challenges the protagonist and the audience to see things from another perspective. Overall, the plot is solid and original and breaks new ground in the sci-fi genre.

Neill Blomkamp, the film’s South African writer/director, and producer Peter Jackson, the New Zealand native who directed the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, transplant the U.F.O. genre both geographically and intellectually, turning their film into a narrative that’s at once more plausible and relevant to real-life concerns.

Nothing is said specifically about the film’s setting or South Africa’s obvious history with apartheid, but Blomkamp no doubt places his story there to subtly represent the reality of prejudice and injustice that plagues all humanity. The locale also provides plenty of open space for the humans to create District 9 and the other more isolated internment camp.

And don’t think that just because this movie tackles weighty social issues means that it’s also boring or slow. It’s not. There is plenty of action — chase scenes, “ticking bombs,” and explosions. The film earns its R rating for bloody violence and intense language. Characters get annihilated and guts splatter through the air onto the camera lens (no joke). But none of it seems overly excessive. The action, along with the special effects (which are employed sparingly), are effective without overshadowing the characters or story. District 9 is a blockbuster with a brain. If you go, prepare to be challenged as well as entertained.

Too Big for the Job?

Too Big for the Job? for urban faithA friend called me the other day and challenged me to use my powers for good. I’m a writer; it’s what I do. He asked me to say something about the chatter in the blogoshpere and around the Web suggesting that Dr. Regina Benjamin, President Obama’s choice to become the next U.S. surgeon general, is too overweight for the job. In other words, her size or appearance might send the wrong message to the country.

Dr. Benjamin is a doctor — a very good one. She is a MacArthur Grant fellow and the president of the Medical Association of the state of Alabama, where she launched a clinic to serve poor residents affected by Hurricane Katrina. She was the first African American woman to sit on the board of trustees for the American Medical Association, and the U.S. recepient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

Oh, and she’s a doctor — a very good one.

The criticisms being leveled against Dr. Benjamin should probably not come as a surprise in our current political climate, where every move President Obama makes is found suspect by some group of haters. At times, the opposition has been rooted in suspicions about Obama’s racial loyalties. So, when he nominates an eminently qualified judge like Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, questions arise about whether she’ll favor Latinos and other minorities over white males. And when he speaks out (yeah, perhaps too honestly) about the Henry Louis Gates incident, according to some, it proves that he’s a racist. Then there are those who worry that Dr. Francis Collins, Obama’s choice as director of the National Institutes of Health, is “too Christian” to head the nation’s premier medical research agency.

This latest drama seems to be subtly fueled by biases on various fronts. First, though it may be a fair question to ask whether Dr. Benjamin, as the nation’s principal champion of good health, should look the part, it’s also fair to ask whether our culture’s perception of what “healthy” looks like is a bit skewed. For instance, does the American standard of beauty look more like a size 2 runway model or the size 14 of the average American woman? Popular culture would have us believe that any woman who has a little meat on her bones is unattractive.

A better question would be, is Dr. Benjamin healthy? Yes, obesity is a problem in our nation. But unrealistic notions of the ideal female body may be an even bigger problem. If a woman is eating right and getting the proper daily exercise, that is the most important thing, not whether she looks stick thin.

A second bias in play regarding the criticism of Dr. Benjamin’s weight involves the racial and gender stereotypes that have long circulated about African American women — that they are large and loud. Whether intentional or not (and I’m betting some of the critics know exactly what they’re doing), questioning Dr. Benjamin’s qualifications based on her size conjures the old sexist fears of the “too-aggressive, unfeminine black woman.” That kind of prejudice must stop.

If we judged all potential leaders primarily by their physical appearance, rather than their character, talent, and credentials, many exceptional individuals would never be given a chance to lead. In fact, the denial of opportunity to qualified individuals because of race, gender, or physical difference has been one of the shameful tragedies of American history. By now, we should know better.

By all accounts, Regina Benjamin is an excellent doctor who will bring vision, wisdom, and compassion to the role of surgeon general. We should all be outraged that some people would want to deny a highly educated African American woman this opportunity not because she isn’t smart enough, but because she isn’t skinny enough.